Early Christian Communism

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This article
is excerpted from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
volume 1, chapter 9: “Roots of Marxism: Messianic Communism.” An
MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach, is
for download

For centuries
the alleged ideal of communism had come to the world as a messianic
and millennial creed. Various seers, notably Joachim of Fiore,
had prophesied the final state of mankind as one of perfect harmony
and equality, one where all things are owned in common, where
there is no necessity for work or need for the division of labor.
In the case of Joachim, of course, problems of production and
property, indeed of scarcity in general, were "solved"
by man no longer possessing a physical body. As pure spirits,
men as equal and harmonious psychic entities spending all their
time chanting praise to God, might make a certain amount of sense.
But the communist idea applied to a physical mankind still needing
to produce and consume is a very different matter. In any case,
the communist ideal continued to be put forward as a religious,
millennial doctrine. We have seen in
volume I
its enormous influence on the Anabaptist wing of
the Reformation in the 16th century. Millennial and communist
dreams also inspired various fringe Protestant sects during the
English Civil War of the mid-17th century, particularly the Diggers,
the Ranters, and the Fifth Monarchy Men.

The most
important forerunner of Marxian communism among these Civil War
Protestant sectarians was Gerrard Winstanley (1609–60), the
founder of the Digger movement and a man much admired by Marxist
historians. Winstanley’s father was a textile merchant, and young
Gerrard became an apprentice in the cloth trade, rising up to
become a cloth merchant in his own right. Winstanley’s business
failed, however, and he found himself downwardly mobile, an employed
agricultural laborer from 1643 to 1648. As the Protestant Revolution
escalated in the late 1640s, Winstanley turned to writing pamphlets
espousing mystical messianism. By the end of 1648, Winstanley
had expanded his chiliastic doctrine to embrace egalitarian world
communism, in which all goods are owned in common. His theological
groundwork was the heretical, pantheistic view that God is within
every man and woman, and is not a personal deity external to man.
This pantheistic God has decreed "cooperation," which
for Winstanley meant compulsory communism rather than the market
economy, whereas the antithetical creed of the Devil glorified
individual selfishness. In Winstanley’s schema, God, meaning Reason,
created the earth, but the Devil later originated selfishness
and the institution of private property. Winstanley added the
absurd view that England enjoyed communist property before the
Norman Conquest in 1066, and that this conquest created the institution
of private property. His call, then, was to return to the supposedly
original communist system.[1]

In the final,
most fully developed version of his system, The
Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored

(1652), Winstanley envisioned a largely agrarian society, in which
all goods would be communally owned, and where all wage labor
and all commerce or trade would be outlawed. In fact, all sale
or purchase of goods would be punishable by death as treasonous
to the communist system. Money would be clearly unnecessary since
there would be no trade, and presumably it would be outlawed as
well. The government would establish storehouses to collect and
distribute all goods, and severe penalties would be levied on
"idlers." By this time, Winstanley’s pantheism had begun
to shade into atheism, for all professional clergy would be outlawed,
there would be no Sabbath observation, and "ministers"
would be elected by the voters to give what would be essentially
secular sermons, teaching everyone the virtues of the communist
system. Education would be free and compulsory, and most of the
children would be channeled into useful crafts – a foreshadowing
of the progressive educational creed. Book-learning, which the
uneducated Winstanley felt to be far inferior to practical vocational
skill, would be discouraged.

strategic recipe for communist victory was for various groups
of his followers, or Diggers, to move peacefully into waste or
common lands, and to set up communist societies upon them. The
first Digger group, led by Winstanley, moved on to waste lands
near south London in April 1649, and ten Digger settlements were
thereby established over the next year. Only 30 Diggers moved
into the first commune, and only a few hundred set up communes
across the country. The notion was that these egalitarian communist
settlements would so inspire the masses that they would abandon
wage work or private property and move on to Digger settlements,
thus bringing about the withering away of the market and of private
property. In reality, the masses treated the Digger communes with
great hostility, causing their suppression in a short period of
time. By the time of his magnum opus in 1652, Winstanley
was vainly appealing to the dictator, Oliver Cromwell, to impose
his cherished system from above. The idea of mass direct action
to establish his system was rapidly abandoned in the face of reality.

Another more
mystical communist sect during the English Civil War was the half-crazed
Ranters. The Ranters were classic antinomians, that is, they believed
that all human beings were automatically saved by the existence
of Jesus, and that therefore all men are free to disobey all laws
and to flout all moral rules. Indeed, it was supposed to be good
and desirable to commit as many sins as possible in order to demonstrate
one’s automatic freedom from sin, and to purge oneself of false
guilt about committing sins. To the pure at heart, the Ranters
opined, all things are pure. The Ranters, like Joachim of Fiore
and the Anabaptists of the Reformation, proclaimed the coming
age of the Holy Spirit, which moved in every man. The key difference
from orthodox Calvinism or Puritanism is that in those more orthodox
creeds, the workings of the Holy Spirit were closely tied to the
Holy Word – that is, the Bible. For the Ranters and other
Inner Light Groups, however, all deuces were literally wild. The
Ranters pursued this path, too, to pantheism: as one of their
leaders declared: "The essence of God was as much in the
Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel."

The Ranters,
then, combined their belief in communism with total sexual licence,
including the practice of communism of women, and communal homosexual
and heterosexual orgies.[2]


Most of the Protestant groups, on the other hand, held the very
different, and essentially correct, view that the Norman Conquest
imposed state-created feudal-type landed estates on an England
which had been much closer to being an idyll of genuine private

Engels and
other historians and anthropologists also saw original early communism,
or a Golden Age, in primitive, premarket tribal societies. Modern
anthropological research, however, has demonstrated that most
primitive and tribal societies were based on private property,
money, and market economies. Thus, see Bruce Benson, "Enforcement
of Private Property Rights in Primitive Societies: Law Without
Government." Journal of Libertarian Studies, 9 (Winter
1989), pp. 1–26.

Something should be said here about the most prominent of these
radical groups, the Fifth Monarchists. While not necessarily communists,
they were akin to the Anabaptists of the Reformation in that they
were postmillennialists who believed that only they, the elect,
would be saved. Further, they believed that it was their historical
mission to destroy everyone else in the world, so as to liberate
the world from sin, and usher in the imminent Second Coming of
Jesus and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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